After weeks of worrisome silence, we are beginning to hear a number of voices discuss the fate of the 2020 college football season. Some of what’s being said is encouraging; some is troubling; all of it underscores the impact of COVID19—and government reaction to it.

First things first: Life is more important than sports. Containing a killer contagion is more important than playing football. And college football players are not professionals; as such, they cannot organize to protect their interests. We should keep these caveats in mind as we digest what’s filtering out about the 2020 season, as decisionmakers contemplate what to do about college football, and as we come to grips with their decisions.

Given those parameters, let’s spend a few minutes thinking through some of the scenarios decisionmakers are exploring—and what those scenarios might mean for the future of college football and for Purdue.

No Season
What seemed unthinkable in mid-March is all-too possible today: There might not be a 2020 college football season. The implications of that possibility are far wider and deeper than most observers are ready to contemplate—and not because college football is an essential part of life. It is not. Rather, a canceled college football season would mean the American people and their institutions are unable—11 or 12 months into the COVID19 crisis—to deal with the virus and its many effects. As SEC commissioner Greg Sankey puts it, “If football is not an active part of our life in the fall, what’s happening around us becomes a real big question societally, economically and culturally.”

Indeed, the consequences of a canceled season would be far-reaching for our society, for the national psyche, for higher education, college athletics, college students and would-be college students.

Return to Normalcy
The glimmer of good news is that given what we are hearing from Chris Fowler, Brett Murphy and others, it seems more likely that we will have a 2020 college football season of some kind, in some form, at some point. Decisionmakers are approaching the 2020 season from a stance of “How can we make this happen?” rather than “Should we play?” (there’s an enormous difference between those starting points). Bret Gilliland, a member of the NCAA’s football oversight committee, notes that “A lot of really smart people are planning and working on scenarios with that [playing in 2020] as the intended outcome…I remain optimistic that we’re going to play.”

Murphy polled all 130 FBS athletic directors and received 114 responses. Ninety-nine percent “believe a season will be played in one form or another.” Murphy found that 75 percent of ADs think the season will be delayed, with 61 percent saying the season will start in October or November.

At the other end of the spectrum from no season at all is a normal season that starts around Labor Day. That seems unlikely, given what Fowler says he’s hearing. However, Gilliland recently said, “I'm optimistic we can get going again in the fall.”

That doesn’t mean by Labor Day weekend, of course. Fall doesn’t technically begin until September 22. Still, it’s intriguing that CFP executive director Bill Hancock says, “We're planning on a CFP…on time.” That could mean a normal season starting on time, but it also could mean a shortened season starting late but ending on time.

No Non-Con Games
Under the shortened-season scenario, it’s possible that 2020 could be a conference-only season, followed by a shortened bowl season. Murphy’s reporting suggests there’s a desire among the Power Five conferences that if there is a truncated season, they’ll try to agree on the number of conference games they would play. Right now, the Big 10, Big 12 and Pac 12 play nine conference games; the SEC and ACC play eight. (Might increased collaboration among Power Five conferences accelerate their separation from the NCAA?)

Sankey says, “There is room for different conferences to make different decisions. If there’s a couple of programs that aren’t able [to play], does that stop everyone? I’m not sure it does.” In a similar vein, South Carolina AD Ray Tanner asks, “If I told you there would be football, but it's not possible for everybody to be aligned, you'd still take football, wouldn't you?” In short, it seems the SEC is signaling it won’t wait on an “all clear” from the mayor of Los Angeles or governor of California.

With or without inter-conference cooperation, if public-health officials prohibit sporting events until October, conferences could require their members to drop all non-con games scheduled for August and September, and then shift any conference games originally scheduled for September into December or an open date. (Purdue is slated to play Nebraska the first week of September.) This also raises the possibility of conferences adding conference games. For example, if the Big Ten decides all non-con games are canceled, the conference could add up to three conference games to ensure that each school hosts six home games—and help the league produce a full 12-game slate.

A compromise idea mentioned by Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick is a conference schedule plus one out-of-conference game, which could allow for some of high-profile cross-conference games.

A shortened season would require modification of bowl-eligibility rules.

Delay of Games
Another possibility is a normal-length season with a delayed start. This raises lots of scheduling issues for non-con games. But if the season were to start, say, the first Saturday in October (October 3), schools could play the games as currently scheduled from October through November, and then reschedule September games for dates in December. (Purdue’s pre-October schedule includes Nebraska, Memphis, Air Force and BC.)  Conference championships could then be bumped into the first week of January, with bowls and the CFP played soon thereafter. That would make the 2020 college football season as close to normal as possible.

There are other delayed-season scenarios that leave much to be desired. Fowler says decisionmakers are mulling a February start. In other words, the “2020 season” would be played in 2021. Murphy reports that some ADs want to start “after the Christmas holiday break.” Another idea some ADs shared with Murphy is playing a portion of the season in the fall semester and a portion in the spring, with Christmas/New Year’s week serving as a midseason break. That would mean five or six games would be played in January and early February, with bowls and the CFP played before March.

While that would be preferable to starting in February, the long-delay scenarios present problems.

First, think about the weather across the northern two-thirds of the U.S. in January and February. Imagine playing (let alone watching) football in Chicago, Madison, Minneapolis, West Lafayette, Iowa City, Ann Arbor, Salt Lake City, Boulder or Laramie in February. (Recall that inclement weather has not been kind to Coach Brohm’s Boilers.) Minnesota might be able to rent USBank Stadium. Perhaps MSU and Michigan could work something out with Ford Field. IU and Purdue might be able to use Lucas Oil. But most Big 10 schools and many other FBS programs have no such alternative.

Second, starting in January would mean playing through the end of March and into April, which would overshadow NCAA basketball and likely overwhelm the institutional infrastructure of many schools. (Each school only has so many staff to handle tickets, media, travel, facilities, security and COVID19-era screening issues.)

Third, it would create huge issues for the actual 2021 football season—player recovery and health, recruiting and evaluation, preparation and planning. Murphy adds that shifting the season into wintertime might lead some players to choose not to play due to the NFL draft, which makes me wonder, “What if our last memory of Rondale Moore in a Purdue uniform is him writhing in pain during the Minnesota game?”

Start and Stop
A scenario that is surely on the minds of decisionmakers is a season cut short due to a flareup of the virus among student-athletes. If—when—a player tests positive for the virus, there would be strong pressure to shut everything down. As Tanner puts it, “We’re not going to put football ahead of safety and well-being.” To prepare for this scenario, schools and conferences need to have in place mitigation efforts such as testing regimens and quarantine protocols. One of the reasons a January start is being considered relates to the early success ofantiviral trials (antivirals treat infection) and the rapid advance toward promising vaccines (vaccines aim to prevent infection)—one or both of which could be available for mass-distribution by January. That would alleviate many (though not all) health concerns.

No Fans

Another scenario is games without fans. “It's possible we could return to some form of competition before we go to public assembly,” says Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby.

There would be a huge economic impact for each host campus if this plan is adopted. Recall that when it appeared the NCAA might shut down Penn St. football after the Sandusky scandal, one report pointed to an “annual economic impact of $161.5 million” for businesses around campus.

That said, playing road games in empty venues would probably be good for Purdue (at least in football). Ross-Ade has its moments, but it’s not the home-field advantage of Camp Randall or Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium.

CBS reports that decisionmakers are mulling“regional schedules,” in which Power Five conferences are paired with second-tier conferences in the same region (e.g. SEC-Sun Belt, Pac 12-Mountain West, Big 10-MAC). “With regional schedules, regular conference games would be played. Nonconference games against that ‘partner’ league would be inserted to reduce travel and fill out the schedule.”

Road Warriors

It’s easy to imagine—in fact, it’s already happening—some states reopening while other states remain under “shelter in place” orders. Gilliland says where to play will be “a conference discussion,” adding that “state guidance” and “the status of your campus” will be key factors.

Under any number of scenarios discussed here, there’s a possibility that schools based in states still struggling with COVID19 could be forced to play all their games on the road. There’s precedent for this due to hurricanes and stadium construction. But it won’t be easy on those programs or their cities/campuses.

Looking Forward
Some will bristle at the haphazardness of what the 2020 season may ultimately look like—one conference playing 12 games, another playing eight or nine, still another requiring member-programs to play games on the road, some not playing at all. But in a sense, this would be a reflection of the system America’s founders gave us. The COVID19 crisis reminds us that our federal system makes it difficult to force everyone in every state to get on the same page. Yet this very system encourages the sort of flexibility and creativity needed to address challenges in a targeted way. In other words, what makes sense and what’s necessary for Nebraska in battling COVID19 may not for New Jersey. That explains why governors have tailored policies to their states. Something similar could happen with schools and conferences.

Still, given that Anthony Fauci (director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases) says schools should “be in good shape” for classroom instruction this fall, it would be difficult to understand university presidents not opening their campuses. Of course, college administrators are highly risk-averse. Given the litigiousness of society, it’s hard to blame them. Post-COVID19 liability issues have to be addressed to shield schools, theaters, restaurants, workplaces and stadiums from unwarranted lawsuits. Congressional action on this targeted form of liability-protection is key to opening a pathway back to commercial and cultural activity.

To their credit, some university presidents, such as Brown’s Christina Paxson and Purdue’s Mitch Daniels, are articulating how and why colleges must reopen. Daniels’ plannotes that the mass-quarantine was “necessary step.” But he adds: “it has come at extraordinary costs, as much human as economic, and at some point, clearly before next fall, will begin to vastly outweigh the benefits of its continuance.” That’s why he is looking ahead to a return to some semblance of normalcy. “Assuming governmental authorities permit reopening of our schools by the customary August start,” Purdue will “accept students on campus in typical numbers this fall, sober about the certain problems that the COVID19 virus represents, but determined not to surrender helplessly to those difficulties but to tackle and manage them aggressively and creatively.” His office is working on policies to protect students and staff, including “pre-testing of students and staff before arrival” and during the year, “spreading out classes across days and times,” and expanding “online instruction for on-campus students.”

Daniels’ roadmap is already providing a way forward for other colleges. Soon after he shared his vision, Missouri announced plans to open campus for fall instruction. In addition, Arizona, Baylor, Central Florida, Clemson, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Nebraska, N.C. State, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Utah, Wake Forest, Washington St., West Virginia, Virginia and many others are planning toreturn to on-campus instruction in August/September. The list grows by the day.


We—as individuals, as a nation, as a species—don’t have to play or watch football, or any other sport, to survive. Yet it’s telling that 15,000 years ago humans engaged in sprinting and wrestling competitions (sounds something like football). Athletic competition, it seems, is deeply ingrained in humanness.

One of the first things we learned and loved about Jeff Brohmwas his unrehearsed line, “Let’s play football.” Brohm’s famous phrase seems like the perfect motto for the season yet to come—the season we hope will come.